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Tips on Choosing a Kindergarten for Your Child

This crucial grade is the foundation of elementary learning. Here are some tips and insights for picking your child's school – and why it's so important.

Content brought to you by Excellent Schools Detroit

In 1988, Robert Fulghum published a book named after an essay inside it titled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It quickly rose to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. The essay acknowledges the many lessons first learned in kindergarten that are truly important for life, including sharing, kindness and responsibility.

Fulghum may well have been on to something.

In 2010, Harvard researchers conducted a study revealing that children who attend quality kindergarten go to college in higher numbers, save more as an adult for retirement and earn more over their lifetime.

Educating parents about the importance of kindergarten – and early education in general – is the life work of Denise Smith, Vice President for Early Learning at Excellent Schools Detroit.

"Kindergarten is one of the last frontiers, if you will, to prepare your child for elementary school," says Smith. "Kindergarten provides necessary socialization and lessons in self-control and regulation. These abilities are indicative not only of how a child will perform in school but how he or she may be labeled."

Smith explains that children who are not used to sitting still and following directions may be labeled as having behavioral problems – when the reality is that they just never sat at a desk before.

"Kindergarten helps teach children to follow commands like lining up and putting their things away," she says. "Children have to learn those skills. Kindergarten provides a critical transition period. When kids miss it, they struggle as the learning gap widens."

Upping enrollment

Data from the 2013 Kids Count in Michigan study to assess the well-being of children in the state revealed that approximately 20 percent of children eligible for kindergarten in Detroit are not enrolled. This is despite research that has repeatedly demonstrated the value of kindergarten to long-term learning and achievement.

In response, Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) and community partners have launched the Kick-off to Kindergarten (K2K) campaign to increase kindergarten enrollment at higher-quality schools and increase general knowledge about kindergarten readiness in an effort to curb the trend.

"We are targeting those families at a higher enrollment risk," Smith says. "Many of these parents don't enroll their child in school for adult reasons."

Those reasons, Smith maintains, include parents' work schedules or their social lives, either of which make it more challenging for parents to wake up in the morning and get their child off to school.

"The state does not make kindergarten mandatory," Smith says. "Michigan is one of 20 states that don't make it so."

Smith explains that in addition to adult schedules, those parents less likely to enroll their child in kindergarten tend to have less education themselves and make less money, if they are employed at all.

"Life cycles repeat for kids if we don't help break them," she notes.

Early in the campaign, ESD held a series of focus groups to identify the causes behind parents' decision not to enroll their child in kindergarten. The next phase of the campaign is to educate on the importance of kindergarten enrollment through door-to-door outreach, mailers and video.

So far, eight of 31 ESD-recommended schools have signed on to the K2K campaign, agreeing to allot a certain number of slots to children brought into the system through the campaign.

"What good will it do to send these kids to the lowest-performing schools?" Smith explains.

These eight schools include Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Detroit Innovation Academy, Detroit Merit Charter Academy, Detroit Premier Academy, Madison-Carver Academy, Maybury Elementary School, Roberto Clemente Learning Academy and Thirkell Elementary School. They are paired up with community partners to spread awareness about kindergarten enrollment procedures and events.

"Kindergarten bridges the gap between early education and early elementary," Smith says. "This transition is critically important."

Enrolling advice

Now is the time. Kindergarten open enrollment is in full swing across Detroit, and the options parents have for where to send their child and how to prepare him or her for this major next step are myriad.

Leah Frazier's soon-to-be 5-year-old, Maxwell, will start kindergarten at Golightly Education Center in Detroit this fall. The transition should be a smooth one, since it is the same school where Maxwell attended 4-year-old preschool.

"Golightly is where I went to school myself and where my eldest daughter did, and it is where my middle child currently is," Frazier says of her school decision. "There is a lot of parent involvement, and everyone is like family."

For the many parents who don't yet know which school is best for their child, Linda Sapp, reading literacy manager at Matrix Head Start - Vista Nuevas in Detroit, recommends parents read through the directory of Detroit schools, so they know their options.

"Review the directory and identify some potential schools for your child," she advises. "Then really begin your research by scheduling tours at your schools of interest."

Sapp encourages the parents of children at any of her school's 13 facilities to attend one of the school's parent workshops, where they can gather information about preparing for kindergarten.

"Something that's new for parents is the age requirement for kids beginning kindergarten in the fall," she notes. "The age requirement has changed, and now children must be 5 years old by Oct. 1 to start kindergarten."

Sapp points out that the date will move up to Sept. 1 for the 2015-16 school year.

"It's important for parents to know this because they may have other younger children coming up who will be affected," she says.

Getting educated

Wilma Taylor-Costen, Assistant Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools (DPS), wants parents to know that the month of May presents a prime opportunity to get up to speed on school options, steps they need to take to enroll their child in a DPS school, and a chance to tour facilities and meet with teachers and administrators.

Taylor-Costen suggests parents uncertain about where they want to send their child take advantage of the bus services that will be available to shuttle them to different schools to get a feel for each. Parents of incoming kindergarteners will be able to pick the brains of current kindergarten parents who are part of what DPS is calling the "Kindergarten Welcome Wagon."

"These parents are like mentors guiding new parents through the process and what they can expect," Taylor-Costen explains.

During a visit to a potential school for their child, parents can fill out the registration paperwork necessary to enroll their child. They will need to have with them a copy of their driver's license or other proof of address (W-2, pay stubs, public assistance documents, utility bills or official government mail), their child's birth certificate and their child's immunization record (available upon request from their child's current pediatrician). If a child has a medical need, any records like an Individualized Education Program or copy of his or her most recent physical may also be required.

Linda Sapp wants parents to know that many charter schools in Detroit determine admission based on a lottery.

"You need to have a backup school in mind in case your child's name is not pulled in the lottery," she says. "Siblings of children currently at charter schools that use a lottery system typically are ensured a spot."

Sapp, Taylor-Costen and Smith all agree that a tour of the school(s) parents are leaning toward is a necessary step.

Smith recommends parents schedule the tour during the school day, so parents can see the classroom in action. Taylor-Costen suggests parents call ahead to schedule the tour to ensure the principal will be free to meet with you.

"You can absolutely set up an appointment with any principal," she says "This provides an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation."

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